Alan Watkins: Labour's backbenchers are revolting

The government's MPs want to pick a fight, whether its over the Speaker or the Iraq war inquiry
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The Independent Online

It is hard to see the Government surviving for a whole year, or just under. Mr Gordon Brown talks of going on and on and on, just as Ramsay MacDonald did in the 1930s, or as Margaret Thatcher did on a later occasion, not long before her fall. I cannot see it happening. But then we live in strange times, as the election of the new Speaker demonstrates.

Eight years ago the Labour backbenchers staged a little demonstration of their own. It was to the effect that Mr Tony Blair had not completely taken over the Labour Party. The officially approved candidates, Menzies Campbell and Sir George Young (of whom only Sir George was standing last week) were rejected in favour of a representative of old Glasgow Labour, Mr Michael Martin.

My view is that he was not the unmitigated disaster that some commentators and many MPs said he was, but that he had served long enough in the job. It was not entirely – or even principally – his fault that the expenses row developed as it did.

The Labour backbenchers then turned on their own party and on the Conservative opposition by proceeding to elect Mr John Bercow as Speaker. It was a favourite formulation of the late Auberon Waugh when something had gone badly wrong: "Such a good joke."

The story is that after the election, the Conservative majority will choose a new Speaker, for Mr Bercow is not at all popular in his own party. My feeling is that after the election, Mr David Cameron will have other things on his mind than the choice of a new Speaker, and that we shall be stuck with Mr Speaker Bercow for some time to come.

He may, of course, turn out to be an excellent choice, as Madam Speaker Boothroyd was. Indeed, if we had a halfway decent constitution, the first new President of the Republic would be Betty Boothroyd, a fine figure of a woman.

Mr Cameron is responding to the crisis in our politics (for so it is) in much the same way as Mr Brown. His approach is arbitrary, perfunctory: based on no clear procedures and on no settled principles. It is a form of lynch law. Mr Cameron said that if goods or money have been acquired by questionable means, the sums involved must be repaid.

Numerous erring legislators have completed large cheques for this purpose. Most people engaged in the ordinary business of life do not imagine that they can sign a cheque and thereby escape a different and heavier penalty.

Over income tax, as I understand the position, unpaid tax is reclaimed at a higher rate than it would be if the money had been extracted in the normal course of events. Even this is described as a concession rather than as a full penalty.

Mr Cameron is proving adept at poking round puddles with a stick and producing some very cloudy water. He mentioned the case of a shadow minister. I am not going to name her because I do not know the full facts. She had repaid a large sum. Mr Cameron claimed she had done the decent thing. But it appears that she had been acting in clear breach of the rules.

With others, again, it is the other way about.

Members are persecuted because of the often bizarre nature of the claims made – moles, manure, what have you – rather than because of

any intrinsic dishonesty that may be involved. I do not want to persecute Mr Cameron about this. He sees the events of the last month or so as an opportunity to attack Mr Brown and only to rid himself of various embarrassing presences on the Conservative benches.

The evidence so far is that the voters speak even more slightingly about Labour then they do about the Conservatives, but that the Tories have not contrived to maintain a massive lead in the polls.

The Government is trying hard to bring about a terrible disaster for Labour. But the voters are still reluctant to entrust their affections wholly to Mr Cameron. The debate on the Iraq inquiry was a case in point.

I was sorry not to see Mr Kenneth Clarke in his new place on the Opposition front bench. From his former place on the back benches, he mounted one of the strongest attacks on the Iraq war. It would, he said, be one of the chief causes of terrorism throughout the Western world. And so it has proved. Among those of the few who have supported him were Sir Peter Tapsell and Mr Douglas Hogg, the moat man. But they were nowhere to be seen in the debate.

Leading for the opposition was Mr William Hague, who in belligerence on behalf of America was, at the time of the original debate in 2003, exceeded only by his then leader, Mr Iain Duncan Smith. And the winding-up was left to the scarcely less bellicose Mr Liam Fox. Not much sign of a rethink on Iraq by the Conservative Party.

The participants on both sides of the House seemed obsessed by the question of whether the witnesses before the inquiry should be required to take an oath. Otherwise, it was clearly felt, the witnesses would be tempted to tell the most colossal whoppers. The Government had resisted this course. Sir Menzies Campbell suggested that the inquiry could hear evidence on oath in the course of an ordinary Parliamentary investigation. But this was too simple and too obvious a solution. I am unable, however, to see what real difference it would make.

St Matthew (5: 34-37) tells us: "Swear not at all ... but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."

I once asked the late Sir Edward Boyle, the education minister in a Tory government, why he refused to take the oath when he was signing on for the new Parliament, but preferred to affirm instead. Sir Edward was, I knew, a devout High Anglican. Was it some obscure theological reason? It was not quite that. A lot of members liked to affirm, and he thought he ought to respect their position.

So the refusal to administer the oath is a minor triumph for the Government over the Iraq inquiry, it is about the only one it has had.

The story goes that, in the effort to shore up Mr Brown's position and to protect Mr Blair, Lord Mandelson promised Mr Brown that the inquiry would be conducted in private – or, at any rate, not in public. The question arises about why Mr Brown, or Lord Mandelson for that matter, should want to hold an inquiry at all. But let that pass. The private or non-public inquiry was to proceed.

The Labour backbenchers who had proved so awkward over Mr Bercow proved equally disobliging over the Iraq inquiry. Even worse for the Government: several panjandrums who had been involved in the Iraq affair from the beginning, notably Lord Butler, who had written one of the original reports, now wanted a public performance with dancing girls.

Lord Mandelson has presumably miscalculated. It would not be the first time in his life. When a politician acquires a reputation for fiendish cunning, it is hard for him to lose it.